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‘Corporate values’: any more than marketing?

11 March 2019

11:32 AM

11 March 2019

11:32 AM

Have you ever wondered what ‘corporate values’ are? I must confess here that it is entirely possible that ‘values’ do not even exist. The term for ‘values’ used to be ‘principles’ or even ‘moral principles’ and they were related to the basis of the decisions we make; i.e., we decide not to commit adultery because we promised another person our complete and undivided attention. But the term ‘values’ is ambiguous for two reasons; first, it has come to mean the ends sort, rather than the means chosen and, second, it became a substitute word for ‘moral principles’ at a time when a philosopher argued that such moral principles could not be objectively proven; i.e., did not exist.

I was reminded of this when I read that Google’s senior director of U.S. public policy, Adam Kovacevich appeared to describe the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) as a “sideshow circus.” Kovacevich went on to explain that there were two sides to CPAC, one side being a “premier gathering” of conservative experts and the other being outrageous figures who “say incendiary and offensive things.”

Kovacevich declared that “We abhor and rebuke the offensive things. Those things obviously don’t align with Google’s values and our approach.” Note that he claims that Google has values; not that he, Kovacevich, or the rest of Alphabet has values; just Google. Many would dispute his claim, arguing that what he calls values are actually vices. No dispute is tolerated. Google ‘values’ and I’m sure you will get Google. But, think about it, as a result of corporations law, there is such a thing as the corporate ‘person.’ If a person why not values?

The answer is self-evident. Despite the legal fiction about the corporation being a person and the directors its agents, in reality, what every director knows, is that the corporation is the agent of the directors. The so-called ‘corporate veil’ is actually a legal shield protecting shareholders and directs from the company’s debts. Corporations don’t actually make any decisions so they do not need any values. Directors and management do make decisions and, do need principles, as these are usually credited to the company.

This became patently obvious during the Banking Royal Commission. It was also pointed out to me by now long dead Supreme Court Judge who showed me that in the first 40 years after the infamous corporations case of Salomon v Salomon in 1896, 80 per cent of company liquidations involved a fraud on the tax man; that is, the directors liquidated companies that owed tax.

That tends to show that Google really does not have any values. What Kovacevich claimed were Google’s values were actually rules or opinions that Googles senior management imposed on employees in order to generate public opinion about the company. So-called corporate values are a marketing spin-off from a corporation’s “Mission Statement;” letting the public know “what we stand for.”

While I have met quite a few corporate directors and managers who have had a very clear view of what the public needs to know about their company in order to deliver the profits on which they survive, it has always been Government organisations who attempt to closely align their purpose or mission statement with what they believe the public expects from that organisation; something often at odds with the opinions of the particular Minister in power at the time.

That is why you need to know that Kovacevich said about Google’s values: “I mean, I think at a certain point our values are our values, right? Google stands for inclusiveness, we stand for tolerance, we stand for building products for everyone, and if certain outlets don’t like that, we are probably going to be at odds with them perpetually, right?”

Google managers actually see themselves as a sort of government department insisting on inclusiveness and tolerance as the end without stipulating the means of obtaining that end. That is not morality, it is a fiction used by some governments who spend millions on advertisements that signal their values. Whenever you use Google search engine you should repeat so that you never forget you are dealing with very wealthy, under-educated pigs: “Four legs good, two legs bad.”

David Long is a retired solicitor, economist and PhD candidate at Griffith University, School of Law.

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